A deeply affecting look at the trials and tribulations of dealing with cancer
That Dragon, Cancer is not a traditional gaming experience, if indeed the definition of such a thing is no longer as clear as it perhaps used to be. Much more in line with interactive art-house storytelling experiences such as Gone Home and to a lesser extent Papo & Yo, That Dragon, Cancer eschews typical gameplay beats in favour of delivering a love letter for dealing with the titular condition and how it affects those who are most precious to us.
Split into fourteen scenes that can be completed in any order, though it is recommended that they are tackled chronologically, That Dragon, Cancer takes players on an allegorical journey through the lives of the Green family as their youngest child, Joel, is diagnosed with cancer at just twelve months old. Jointly developed by Joel’s parents Amy and Ryan Green, alongside close friends of the family, That Dragon, Cancer has a tremendously heartfelt, ‘first-hand’ feeling to it that very few, if any games outside of possibly Papo & Yo, can really lay claim to and because of that, the game boasts an emotional heft quite unlike any other.
Though geometrically simplistic, the environments in That Dragon, Cancer still resonate a certain warmth which belie its rudimentary veneer
Rather than embracing a singular mode of gameplay, That Dragon, Cancer elects to tell its story through a number of different points of view and in a wide variety of different ways as the Green family acclimatises itself to the news of Joel’s condition. There are no dystopian regimes to topple here, no wars to fight and no epic quests to embark upon, rather this is a poignant, kaleidoscopic look at the affects of cancer on a family unit with the player largely serving as an observer to the events, both historical and fantastical, that make up its two hour duration.
As a game graded purely in traditional terms, That Dragon, Cancer demands very little from the player and in no shape or form offers any discernible challenge. All it requires is for players to navigate its myriad of worlds, occasionally interacting with events or examining objects all of which further serve to clue you in further as to how the Green family deals with Joel’s plight. Rather than firing a volley of rounds into a foe or orchestrating some tremendous leap across a gaping chasm, inputs in the game are instead delicate and small such as pushing a swing, feeding chunks of bread to a nearby duck during a quiet scene at the park or listening to the heartbeat of the family dog with a stethoscope. This is not an experience for folks looking to stimulate the old adrenaline levels, certainly.
Beyond such cursory and linear interactions with the game world, That Dragon, Cancer also frequently hops between a variety of perspectives too. From controlling the aforementioned duck in a pond to navigating a hospital as a disembodied observer, the game simply refuses to have the player rooted in a singular form for any real stretch of time. Such design eccentricity also extends to the many different realms that the player inhabits too. Whereas Dear Esther by comparison had you navigating a single persistent world, That Dragon, Cancer instead plays havoc with the environment; often throwing the player from one fantastical realm to the next as the lines between the literal and metaphorical blur with frequent regularity.
Often presented through a surrealist aperture, this notion is bolstered by geography and locations which change at the blink of an eye, with new doorways or passages to whole new worlds suddenly appearing where previously a wall or barrier was present. More than just a series of observable events and occasional tasks though, That Dragon, Cancer is above all else an intimate invitation into the lives of other people and its in this sense that the experience feels wholly unique and deeply affecting.
Cancer, and by proxy the themes of hope and faith are often represented through abstraction and extrapolation
A big part of what makes That Dragon, Cancer function so convincingly well on an emotional level is the frankly brilliant sound engineering and voice performances from the cast. As an example of the former, one frequently used trope is the phasing in and out of sound samples where we can hear Amy and Ryan talking to Joel and his brothers about his condition and how the family is dealing with it. Whether they’re trying to convince Joel’s siblings about how exciting a move to California could be in order for his treatment to continue, through to their own monologues on dealing with the emotional pain of their circumstances, it never feels anything less than heartbreakingly authentic and the emotional grit showcased by Amy and Ryan’s performances do an admirably grand job of cementing this fact.
With such a weighty and bleak subject matter, the temptation must surely have existed to make That Dragon, Cancer a far bleaker and more harrowing affair than what we’ve ended up with. Sure enough, while the game does indeed have its fair share of more solemn and darker moments (a hospital scene where Ryan is seen caring for a constantly crying, in distress Joel resonates especially strongly), it also has its fair share of more upbeat and deeply philosophical moments that lean greatly on the power of hope and faith as tenets for overcoming adversity.
Another such example is when Joel starts his treatment at the hospital, the sterile and utilitarian looking corridors of the building are instead reimagined as a go karting race track where he playfully knocks animal balloons out of the way and collects fruit while minutes, hours and days blaze by in a matter of seconds. Although such sections as the karting and the side-scrolling adventure seemingly deviate from That Dragon, Cancer’s modus operandi, there is no fail state or demands on player ability here, with such sections instead serving as tools of artistic expression that deepen the narrative rather than functioning in any sort of adversarial capacity.
Expect your heartstrings to be pulled to breaking point
Speaking of adversity, the cancer itself is largely represented here in a fashion appropriate to its characteristics; an obsidian, pulsating thorny growth, the disease is initially found in the very first scene of the game with precious little fanfare before shedding its insidiousness later on in favour of a more omnipresent role as the game hurtles relentlessly towards its conclusion. Only on one occasion is the disease depicted differently, where during a brief side-scrolling platforming section that acts as an allegory to Joel’s struggle with the disease, the young boy is cast as a courageous knight and cancer becomes the titular and now literal dragon that he and others must fight against.
Technically speaking, while the previously established voice work and evocatively haunting score do a fantastic job of drawing us into Joel’s world and the struggle of his loved ones to deal with the consequences of his condition, a great deal of credit must also be given to the level of visual craft intrinsic in the creation of the game’s many different worlds. Otherwise barren looking, low polygon worlds are brought to life with an abundance of colour, while warm lighting and a deft command of shadowing combine to create worlds and character models that not only play well to the modest budget of the development team but also more crucially, manage to create a wholly immersive experience in the process.
THAT DRAGON, CANCER VERDICT
Although perceptibly divisive in execution and theme, it becomes difficult to imagine an individual that would experience That Dragon, Cancer and not feel richer and better off for having been immersed in its bittersweet storytelling as the end credits roll. While some might be understandably put off by the slim pickings of traditional genre fare on offer here, That Dragon, Cancer staunchly remains as an experience that everybody should let into their lives regardless.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Wandering around a hospital, reading notes and letters of inspiration and hope from others who have been affected by cancer.
A breathtakingly immersive peek into a real-life struggle with mortality.
Atmospheric audiovisual presentation bolstered by some truly heartfelt voice acting performances.
Those looking for a more traditional 'game' will not find it here.
The whole experience can be seen through in a couple of hours.